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Foreign Correspondent

The Bay of Camels

by Eric Margolis
25 August 1997

NEW YORK - The CIA's 50th anniversary last month turned out to be the Mother of All Bad Birthdays.

The Agency was still reeling from the defection of senior agent Aldrich Ames, who betrayed over 100 agents and CIA's inner workings to Russian intelligence. Ames' monstrous treachery almost destroyed CIA's covert branch, and was comparable to the near fatal damage inflicted in the 1950's on Britain's Secret Intelligence Service by KGB agent, Kim Philby..

Just when things couldn't seem to get worse for the beleaguered, demoralized Agency, details of the CIA's biggest, most costly operational fiasco since the 1961 Bay of Pigs disaster surfaced - right in time for its golden jubilee. Call it Clinton's Bay of Camels.

This column has followed sporadic. CIA attempts over the past six years to overthrow Saddam Hussein's regime. All failed dismally. But in 1995, bitter family squabbles seemed to have weakened Saddam's regime. Two son's-in-law embarrassingly defected to Jordan with highly sensitive military and political secrets. The army was supposedly restive. In mid-1995, President Clinton's new CIA Director, John Deutch, and his deputy, George Tenet, concluded Saddam was vulnerable.

Clinton, eager for a foreign policy triumph, ordered CIA into high gear to overthrow or eliminate the vexatious Saddam. The Agency had long financed a motley,ineffective collection of Iraqi exile groups and Kurdish factions. This time, CIA focused its efforts on the Iraq National Accord(INA), a group of military and political exiles, many formerly part of Saddam's ruling circle.

By putting them into power, CIA hoped to replicate Saddam's iron-fisted regime - but this time with one pro-American and minus Saddam. Most important, the CIA-installed generals were to ensure oil-rich Iraq stayed united, and did not splinter or fall under Iranian influence.

CIA set INA up in Amman, Jordan. The US, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait provided funding. At Erbil, in the anarchic, US- created autonomous Kurdish zone in northern Iraq, CIA assembled and trained a small army of exiles and Kurds for the invasion of Iraq..

Agents of INA, paid by the US, embarked on a bombing and assassination campaign inside Iraq, that killed over 150 civilians. Terrorism is bad, it seems, when used against Americans or Israelis, but fine when used against Iraqis.

By August, 1996, the invasion was ready. It was to begin by a CIA-organized assassination attempt against Saddam. CIA's army of Kurdish rebels and INA men would advance south from Erbil and drive on Baghdad, with massive air support from US warplanes and helicopter gunships. Other anti-Saddam groups would invade from Jordan and Kuwait.

Saddam, as usual, knew all about this ham-handed operation from his spies inside INA and Kurdish groups. Souks across the Fertile Crescent buzzed with rumors of CIA's `secret' invasion.

Saddam struck first - just before the invasion.. He engineered a split between the two largest Kurdish rebel groups. As rival Kurds battled one another, Iraqi armor stormed Erbil, the main CIA base in northern Iraq.

The CIA and its mini-army were totally surprised. Senior agents fled their base one jump ahead of Iraqi troops, abandoning quantities of top-secret documents, electronic equipment, and agent lists.

Saddam's dreaded secret police rolled up all CIA's extensive networks in Kurdistan and Iraq, executing at least 350 American agents, Eighty senior Iraqi officers, poised to mount a coup against Saddam from Baghdad, were arrested and shot.

The biggest. most expensive CIA field operation since the Bay of Pigs ended a bloody, expensive, humiliating, $200 million fiasco. Blame for this catastrophe must be shared by President Clinton, who ordered it, inept CIA Director Deutch, a rank newcomer to covert work, and CIA's bumbling senior bureaucrats.

As usual, Clinton ducked the debacle and pretended he didn't know about it. Deutch was fired and replaced as Director by his deputy, Tenet. True to recent CIA tradition, other responsible senior field officers were promoted. Congress, which is supposed to oversee such major operations, has so far shrugged off the disaster. .

The fact that the US government was funding terrorist bombings in Baghdad - and Tehran - was ignored by Congress and much of the media. As were past attempts by US agents to assassinate Saddam Hussein, Libya's Col. Khadaffi, and Lebanese Shia leaders, though these acts were outright violations of American law. In the Mideast, it seems, all rules are suspended: The moral compass spins.

The Iraqi debacle is yet more proof that the bloated, demoralized CIA needs massive, not just not just cosmetic surgery. One positive sign: recent appointment of the capable Jack Downing, former station chief in Moscow and Beijing, as chief of CIA's clandestine Operations branch. This is one posting the bureaucrats didn't get.

Depressingly, the cost of the `bloodless' Gulf War `victory' keeps rising. Tens of thousands of American troops sickened by gas and germs. Over 100,000 Iraqi children dead from malnutrition caused by the American embargo of Iraq, and Saddam's stubbornness. The waste of $200 million plus and many lives on botched attempts to overthrow Saddam. Anarchy in Kurdistan. The undermining of Iraq's territorial integrity, with potentially explosive consequences for the entire region.

After all this, Saddam still sits proudly on his throne,. quite rightly boasting of his great victory at Erbil against the Americans.


© eric margolis 1997

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